Detzner fiddles as state election system burns
Florida, the state that’s way too familiar with election catastrophe, has new reason to worry about its elections system.
With the 2016 presidential election cycle just starting to heat up, a new audit raises troubling questions about Florida’s ability to conduct elections without a major screwup.
The state’s auditor general says that under Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Florida’s master list of voters is plagued by maintenance, performance and security troubles.
“Without adequate security controls,” the auditors say in their July 20 report, “the risk is increased that the confidentiality, integrity and availability of FVRS (Florida Voter Registration System) data … may be compromised.”
Truthfully, one has to wonder how Detzner has kept his job.
Just how lax have things been? The auditors said that Department of State officials couldn’t say how often the database had shut down until they began asking questions. The answer: Eight times alone between last December and February 2015, including one failure that lasted three days.
One of those breakdowns, in February, had real consequences in Delray Beach, when the county elections office couldn’t verify all 250 signatures that City Commission candidate Ryan Boylston had collected to get on the ballot. Five signatures shy, Boylston was declared ineligible to run.
Crashes like these are frustrating to the state’s 67 county elections supervisors, who need the database to verify the status of voters; imagine the chaos if officials can’t validate registrations on Election Day. But the supervisors say they have received little cooperation from Detzner and little solid information about fixes.
Even before the audit, Detzner had a terrible record. Rather than making sure that Florida’s voter-registration and voting systems are accessible and credible, he has repeatedly acted like his job is to make it as hard as possible for people to vote.
After Gov. Rick Scott appointed the former beer industry lobbyist in January 2012, Detzner spent his first year pursuing previously started drives to limit early voting, curb registration efforts by voter rights advocates, and purge the rolls of some 180,000 dubiously suspected “noncitizens” — until the backlash by courts and critics forced Scott to sign a 2013 election law undoing most of the damage.
Detzner’s credibility with county elections supervisors and state legislators plummeted during the last Legislature, when he unexpectedly opposed a bill to permit online voter registration, an innovation that’s been embraced by 24 states. The measure had bipartisan support and easily passed despite Detzner’s objections, but with a hitch: it won’t go into effect until after the coming presidential election.
The statewide voter database is a key reform of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which Congress passed overwhelmingly after the electoral train wreck of 2000. That law requires the state, instead of local officials, to maintain a single, uniform, computerized statewide voter registration list
That law has provided Florida with some $200 million to improve its elections system. The state spent almost $34 million of that on the database by 2009. Yet the state auditor general identified problems with it in 2006, again in 2008 — and now.
Detzner’s office has offered only general answers to all these problems, saying that a “migration” to an upgraded system is underway.
Last week, Detzner vowed to improve his relationship with county election supervisors, telling them in a conference call that he plans to “overcommunicate.” But with Florida’s primary just eight months away — and sure to be watched the world over — it’s time not for contrition but for action.
We remain skeptical, however, as to whether Detzner should be trusted to ensure that Floridians’ voting rights are protected or that the state will be spared another embarrassment.